Lydia Gard talks to Lady Bamford about the price of perfection
We’re sitting in Bamford HQ in Chelsea, a room so white, bright and scented that I feel almost lightheaded. A Lily of the Valley candle infuses the air with a sweet freshness of a spring morning and opposite me, Lady Carole Bamford sips lemon tea from a handleless porcelain cup while sunlight streams in from the open doors onto a little roof garden. The flat white I brought with me sits between us on the table, going cold in a takeout cup. In this environment, it looks grubby, seedy. I’m a little ashamed to pick it up.
Since Lady Bamford rarely speaks to the press I am expecting her to be reserved, guarded even. And frankly, why wouldn’t she be. Married to JCB heir Sir Anthony Bamford the slightest personal disclosure could see the slathering hounds at the Daily Mail all over the family like a lame fox. Much has been written about her longstanding friendship with ‘Deb’ Devonshire, her shared passion for all things organic with her neighbour, HRH The Prince of Wales (‘He’s a visionary and a spokesman for all that we believe in’). But, eventually, the articles revert to citing her husband’s net worth and belittling her businesses as ‘charming’.
And yet, Carole is unexpectedly open, chatty and girlish, talking excitedly about her trip to Morocco the following day to attend the second installment of Poppy Delevingne and James Cook’s wedding – including the much-photographed all-night rave in the desert.
‘I just had a call to warn me that it’s seriously cold at night, drops to minus ten, so I have to go back and repack tonight,’ she giggles.
Petite, blonde and softly spoken, Lady B (as she is known) is almost birdlike in her manner, but boy, does she know how to charm. She has a habit of reflecting every question back to the person asking, ‘I think so, don’t you?’ It’s not a social tactic, just genuine interest in other people.
When we meet, the Daylesford Summer Festival has just finished its forth year, with some 6,000 people trampling across the fields and farm to enjoy a dog show, rare breeds, heavy horses and Rose Prince giving a lecture (‘she’s lovely’). The whole thing is a very chic take on good old-fashioned family fun – except for the near disaster of running out of Pimms and that moment when the dogs started scrapping, ‘It’s very eccentric English entertainment, but wonderful,’ she says.
‘I went around at 7.30am with my dogs. The stalls were setting up, there was honey production, bee keeping, Jez’s micro tunnels, then the heavy horses arrived, they were marvelous, then into the heritage fruit garden, the creamery, the bakery… I cried actually, I was so moved by it. I’m very proud to be part of this fabulous team.’
And it seems to benefit both sides. At her eponymous clothing line (Bamford) she employs both a knitwear designer and a cut and sew designer just out of college. The last designer Alison went on to be senior designer at Celine, and then there was Franci, who went on to be senior designer for Stella McCartney. ‘They come to me and learn at a small brand where they experience everything, so they learn a lot.’
If it’s not enough running a 4,000-acre organic farming estate in Oxfordshire, complete with café, farm shop and spa; and a clothing brand, and a bath and body range; Lady B recently opened a pub, the Wild Rabbit, in the local village.
I can’t resist jibing that she’s now a posh Peggy Mitchell, and she laughs. ‘I go in there but I don’t pull a pint. Though Anthony does say to people, “I’m now married to a landlady”.’
Which brings me to my rather tricky question. How does her husband feel about her business pursuits. ‘He’s very supportive of me and I’m very supportive of him. We both work very hard and don’t see each other very much. I say, “For goodness sake, don’t retire,” I won’t know what to do with him all day! I can’t imagine either of us not working. The thought of walking around as old age pensioners…’
The entire Bamford clan is tightknit and the family values that underpin her 40-year marriage and keep the couple’s children (Alice, Jo and George) close by, are not just for show. Jo and his wife (knitwear designer Alex Gore-Browne) live ten minutes away (‘I pick up the children from school’), while George and Leonora live in London and come ‘home’ every weekend.
‘I love having grandchildren. I like the fact that you can be a bit naughty and lead them astray a little bit. They call me Grandma Shosho as I’ve always got sweeties in my bag, which I wouldn’t have done with my children!’
She paints a verbal picture of planting with them, collecting eggs, trips to the potting shed and riding at the weekends. But all of this is the antidote to her working week. And ‘work’ is not just a charitable, pedicured toe in the water. Carole Bamford is a dynamic, forward-thinking powerhouse of a businesswoman.
It helps to have a true, authentic belief in something. And hers is in clean soil and healthy living, something that evolved when she had her children thirty-something years ago and discovered organic.
‘At first, Anthony thought I was bonkers, but you go organic and the land cleans itself and suddenly there are wild violets and things you didn’t see before, and it’s such a joy. The otters come back and it’s a privilege to see it now, ‘ she enthuses
It could easily have just been a lifestyle choice, but Carole is a very driven woman. And as with any business, it’s passion and attention to detail that help you get heard above the noise. ‘Sometimes I just see something that makes my heart ping or meet someone so talented that I want to find a way to work with them. I love the scent of geraniums and bring them into the bathroom where you can touch the leaves. I don’t have to think about it, it’s just what gives me joy walking around the garden.’
The inspiration for most of the products comes from nature – the pebble soaps are shaped on a stone she found on a beach walk and then brought home for the soaper – and if not things, then people. From Scotland to Italy and India, Carole has sought out specialists who are willing and able to create tiny runs of beautiful cashmere garments with intricate needlework which can’t be produced anywhere else in the world.
‘I’m a forager really, a sourcer. I’ll be on a camel, somewhere around the corner, up a hill in Rishikesh and I’m always looking for something.’ And then we digress into stories of India, Lady B talking with an almost hushed urgency, as though she is imparting a great secret. ‘I went to Rishikesh in the 60s to try transcendental meditation. It was very trendy; I was just following the Beatles, really. But I have an affinity to the place. I’ve been going there since I was 20.’ She smiles broadly, ‘and don’t ask how long ago that was’.
This level of speciality and the small production comes with a hefty price tag, which has left her open to criticism for being ‘elitist’. I ask her if the label is in any way fair. ‘I don’t like the word, I don’t think we are. I like being a niche brand, small, selective. We go to small producers and we are very concerned about the quality of the fabric and cloth and it’s more refined. We’re about quality, wonderful fabrics but we have a conscience. We use small producers and, of course, that costs money, it is expensive. It’s not “throw away”. There’s a story attached.’
Certainly the Bamford brand is not wilfully populist, ‘I don’t want to be on the high street, I want to be around the corner. Of course, I want it to be successful, no one wants to be in business to be a busy fool. But, it’s important to me to preserve skills, like using small traditional weavers, otherwise they’ll disappear.
Pick up a candle and you’ll find that even the wick is organic, every label is made from recycled paper. ‘People ask if I’m mad. We tell the story but perhaps not well enough, we almost don’t want to come across too worthy.’
And with that sort of attention to detail, it’s never going to compete for price, like it does for perfection.
Lady B’s wishlist
- I love a hot water bottle, perhaps because I had arthritis.
- Fresh flowers in the house – wildflowers and a candle.
- The sun. I’m a terrible sunbather, Alice says I’m solar powered – it’s very bad for your skin but I don’t really care. We need vitamin D and it’s terribly relaxing.
- Season: Spring is my season. May is the nicest time of year, but I also love harvest time, the walnuts and the chutney making.
- Country or town: I’m a country girl. I sleep better in the country. I like my dogs and the calm, the quiet and the fresh air. I like to touch base and see what’s happening, but then I’m very happy to go back.
- On your headstone: ‘She tried hard.’